Extraordinary expats making their mark on culture

May 08, 2020
Throughout the ages humans have left their home shores in search of opportunity and adventure. Some have stayed for a short time, while others have spent their lives working overseas; all have impacted their adopted lands in various ways. History is packed with extraordinary expats who have transformed the world as we know it, enriching every aspect of global culture, from literature to long-distance running.

The world of art and literature

The arts have provided a galaxy of expat stars, and nowhere is this more evident than in Paris. Many literary luminaries made the city of lights their home, from Irishmen Oscar Wilde and James Joyce to Americans Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, as well as Russians Ivan Turgenev and Vladimir Nabokov. Some of history’s most beloved visual artists also found themselves working - and partying - in the French capital: Pablo Picasso travelled there from Spain, while Dutchman Vincent Van Gogh arrived from Belgium in search of cheap rent and artistic promise. Francis Bacon was born in Ireland but quickly made his way to Paris, Spain and London as he built his career as a figurative painter. French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin went further afield, all the way to Tahiti, and drew on his life as an expat for inspiration for some of his most famous - and colourful - works. 

A spell abroad often provides an opportunity for inspiration: the idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley while she was staying in Geneva, and George Orwell drew on his time working in Burma and Spain when writing his famous books. Some modern authors split their time between two countries - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lives in both Nigeria and the United States - and others move abroad as part of parallel teaching careers, such as Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle while lecturing in the US.

Nowadays, many creatives head to Berlin, soaking up its vibrant arts scene while enjoying more affordable living costs than other major European cities. British-American writer Christopher Isherwood is one of the most famous - his work about Berlin inspired the popular musical Cabaret - but since then artists of all types have made the German capital their home, such as Brooklyn-born author Deborah Feldman and Dublin-born author Rob Doyle. Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno now lives and works in Berlin, while Chinese artist Ai Weiwei spent almost five years there, before moving onto Britain. 

Performing arts

Many of the world’s most lauded performance artists have brought their extraordinary gifts with them to a new country. Maria Callas moved from the United States to Italy, to Paris and onto London during her career as a legendary opera singer. British conductor Daniel Harding has led orchestras in both France and Sweden, while renowned Chinese-American cellist Tina Guo’s work has brought her to Greece, Canada and Brazil. The glamorous recording studios of the United States have drawn dozens of celebrated pop artists from overseas, including Barbados-born Rihanna, Colombian-born Shakira and Trinidad and Tobago-born Nicki Minaj.

Hollywood too served as a magnet for actors, screenwriters and filmmakers from all around the world: Nicole Kidman, for example, was born in Hawaii where her doctor father was pursuing graduate studies, before growing up in Australia and moving to Los Angeles to pursue her successful acting career. Ang Lee has directed award-winning movies in both Taiwan and the United States, while the British-born director Steve McQueen divides his time between London and Amsterdam. Many celebrities become expats while supporting their spouses’ careers: American actor George Clooney lives in England while his wife Amal Clooney carries out her work as a human rights lawyer, and Israeli-American actor Natalie Portman moved to Paris when her husband Benjamin Millepied became the Paris Opera Ballet's director of dance.

In the sports arena

Sports fields, courts, pitches and pools are full of gifted athletes who’ve moved abroad to develop their talent and pursue new goals, from soccer’s Lionel Messi (born in Argentina and playing in Spain) to rugby’s Dan Carter (born in New Zealand and played in France and Japan). The Olympic medal-winning tennis player Maria Sharapova moved to Florida for her training, later becoming the first Russian woman to win Wimbledon, while the British-born F1 driver Lewis Hamilton divides his time between the racetracks of America, England, and Monaco. The late basketball star Kobe Bryant spent six years living in Italy when his father played for a team in Rieti, becoming fluent in Italian.

In politics

Children of expats often make their way into politics, no doubt drawing on their valuable experience in different cultures and environments while in office. Some who’ve reached the heights of power in Washington were born overseas while their parents were living and working abroad, including John McCain (Panama), Madeleine Albright (Czech Republic) and Ted Cruz (Canada). Demonstrating that the sky's the limit for expats, a number of politicians with expat backgrounds have risen to become leaders of their countries: former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard moved from Wales at age five, former United States President Barack Obama spent some of his childhood overseas in Indonesia and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was born to expat parents in New York. 

Royal ranks have long been swelled by expat in-laws, such as the UK’s Prince Philip (born in Greece) and Monaco’s Princess Charlene (who hails from Zimbabwe). American women especially have made their mark on royal history: Rita Hayworth married Prince Aly Khan, Lisa Halaby became Queen Noor of Jordan, and Meghan Markle is now the Duchess of Sussex, making the United Kingdom her home for almost two years. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, also spent a brief period as an expat, when her English parents were posted to Jordan.


Of course, these are just some of the best-known expats, whose contributions to our culture have left a lasting legacy. But everyone who embraces a globally mobile lifestyle or leaves their home to forge a new life abroad, brings with them varied backgrounds, rich experiences and valuable skills, all of which enhance our society and make our world a more vibrant, diverse and connected place.